Lawyers: Videos show inhumane treatment before jail death

DECATUR, Ga. (AP) — Video clips show that a man who died in a Georgia jail suffered inhumane treatment in the final hours before he died from complications of dehydration while being held on misdemeanor charges, lawyers for his family said Wednesday.

Shali Tilson, 22, was arrested in March 2018 on misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct and obstruction of justice and was booked into the Rockdale County jail, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) east of Atlanta.

A lawsuit filed by his parents says he died nine days later of "a pulmonary embolism caused by dehydration."

The lawsuit alleges that it was apparent when Tilson was arrested that he was undergoing a mental health crisis and was in "an obvious state of extreme mental distress" when he arrived at the jail. Tilson was ultimately placed on "suicide watch," which the lawsuit says the jail uses to segregate mentally ill inmates and place them in solitary confinement.

Tilson lost more than 20 pounds during his nine days in custody and died in a cell with no bed, toilet or running water, according to Mawuli Davis, a lawyer for Tilson's parents. Davis said Wednesday that the family's legal team obtained videos of Tilson's final hours from an unnamed source.

The lawsuit against Rockdale County, Sheriff Eric Levett and several deputies was filed in March and later amended to include details from the videos. It says the deputies were negligent and deliberately indifferent and says the sheriff bears responsibility for unconstitutional conditions of confinement, denial of medical care and adequate water.

Lawyers for the county, sheriff and deputies have asked a judge to dismiss the suit.

The sheriff argued that he is sued in his policymaking role and that nothing in the lawsuit amounts to an unconstitutional policy or practice and that he is entitled to immunity. The deputies also assert immunity and say there is insufficient evidence to show they violated Tilson's constitutional rights.

At a news conference Wednesday, Davis and two other lawyers for the family, Harold Spence and Jeff Filipovits, played clips of the videos that they say show Tilson in his cell in the hours before and immediately following his death.

They said the clips show a naked Tilson trying to call for help using a buzzer that was broken. Garbage is seen on the floor of the cell, which has no furniture or bedding. Davis said a grate in the floor was meant to be used as a toilet.

Family members tried to visit Tilson but were told they couldn't because he was in solitary confinement, the lawsuit says.

Jail policy dictated that inmates on suicide watch must be checked every 15 minutes to make sure they're present and responsive, according to the lawsuit.

On the day Tilson died, the lawsuit says, deputies pushed a food tray into Tilson's cell at 4 p.m. and he pushed the broken buzzer 45 minutes later. He sat against the wall of his cell at 5 p.m. and lost consciousness minutes later. No one checked on Tilson from 4 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., when a deputy falsified the suicide watch logs to show the required checks but didn't check whether Tilson was responsive, the lawsuit says. The next time anyone checked on him was around 8:25 p.m., the lawsuit says.

Tilson's mother, Tynesha Tilson, sobbed Wednesday while watching the videos. She said she's frustrated by the slow pace of the investigation.

"They treated my son worse than an animal," she said, later adding, "I want that sheriff out of office and I want all of those deputies held accountable for my son's death."

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation examined the circumstances surrounding Tilson's death and turned over its files to a district attorney who has convened a special grand jury to investigate Tilson's death, Davis said.

The lawsuit asks for a jury trial and seeks unspecified damages and attorney's fees.

"We want the world to know what happened to Shali Tilson, a young man who died naked, alone, afraid," Spence said, adding the lawsuit seeks to hold accountable those responsible for this "preventable and tragic death."